Tonight was very much a roller coaster, and not just for the lucky season ticket holders who won yearlong passes to Cedar Point.
It started like most coasters do, with a rapid rise to the top - in this case coming from Todd Bertuzzi giving James Wisniewski a little bit of stickwork in the opening minute of the first period, which put the Jackets on the power play.
However, unlike most of the times we've been saying that for the past month, this time they actually made it count!
Ryan Johansen did the lion's share of the work, picking the puck up at the blue line after Boone Jenner carried it into the offensive zone, then driving to the net and whacking the puck down low, finding a gap in Jimmy Howard's coverage to put the Jackets ahead 1-0.
In fact, Columbus spent most of the first half of the period on the attack, forechecking aggressively, and that finally shook loose with another Blue Jackets power play...which short circuited ten seconds later due to Nathan Horton taking a holding call....until Darren Helm hooked down James Wisniewski as he tried to clear the zone, which finally put Columbus on a 4-on-3 power play for about 1:15 when the dust settled.
Not exactly a situation you practice for, but the Jackets spent the majority of the odd man advantage taking cracks at Howard, finally breaking through when Brandon Dubinsky went to the side of the net and tried a goal mouth pass to a wide open Cam Atkinson.
Cam didn't get a piece of it, but that's because the puck hit Danny DeKeyser's skate and went into the net, and the Jackets suddenly had a 2-0 lead.
Unfortunately, every roller coaster eventually crests the rise and starts plunging downhill, and this game was no exception. Minutes after Dubinsky's goal, the Red Wings would break into the Columbus zone, and somehow Jack Johnson decided it wasn't really important to cover the guy who's scored 18 goals since coming back from Sochi. Dalton Prout tried to take out Riley Sheahan before he could move the puck, but the pass made it across the crease to Gustav Nyquist, who had nothing but net to shoot on.
The goal put some extra life in Detroit, and that left the Jackets and Sergei Bobrovsky in "survival mode" for the final five minutes of the first period, but they managed to pull themselves into the intermission with a lead.
Which meant it was quite surprising to see Curtis McElhinney leading the Jackets out for the second period.
It would be announced relatively early on that Bob (who had been experiencing flu-like symptoms this morning, hence the emergency recall of Mike McKenna) had become ill during intermission and would not return. To their credit, the Jackets found the step they had lost late in the first period, and spent most of the early second period pressuring hard on Jimmy Howard, but couldn't quite find what they needed to extend their lead.
That meant that it was almost required for Detroit to tie things up, and boy, did they get it in the most ridiculous way possible.
Tatar took a hard shot that rebounded off C-Mac's leg as he came out to challenge, and flew back towards NyQuil and Johansen as they headed towards the goal. The shot hit Nyquist's stick and skipped back into Ryan Johansen's skate...where his momentum and the angle combined to kick it into the net.
The goal would be reviewed and eventually upheld, leaving us with a tie game.
The Wings threatened, but somehow C-Mac found the saves to keep Columbus in the game through 40 minutes, and despite being outshot 20-16 the Jackets were doing a lot of things right - including pretty solid control of the faceoff dot.
That set the stage for a wild third period, and this game did not disappoint.
Once again, the Jackets attacked to start the period, pushing the Wings and using the speed of guys like Cam Atkinson, Matt Calvert, and Boone Jenner to give the Detroit defense problems.
That appeared to finally pay off about a third of the way through the final period when Calvert and Atkinson forced a turnover and headed up ice on a 2 on 1 rush. Calvert looked off Atkinson for the pass, then decided to take his shot. Howard made the initial stop, but then two different and very important things happened:
- Cam took a shot from the side of the net using the rebound, with Howard out of position and no players or objects blocking the puck's path to the goal.
- Brendan Smith drove into Atkinson with no attempt to stop, knocking both players into the net, which was dislodged by the impact
Despite the net coming off the mooring before the puck crossed the goal line, referee Chris Rooney was emphatic about signaling a goal.
Because, as the beautiful and talented Lori Schmidt points out, Rule 63.6 states that when the goal post has been displaced by the actions of a defending player, and the puck has been shot (or is in the act of being shot) before the goal post is dislodged, the referee is to award the goal if the puck would have entered the net had it not been dislodged.
The goal did go to Toronto for review, but it came back that the goal would stand, and the (quite vocal!) crowd in Columbus went from booing to cheering in the middle of the explanation as they realized exactly what had happened.
That left the Jackets with about 13 minutes between them and a desperately needed regulation win, and a very pissed off Red Wings team looking to even things back up.
Anyone who didn't already have some form of stress induced stomach or heart condition should consider making an appointment with their GP after watching this game, because the Jackets bent over pretty severely in the face of Detroit's counteroffensive, but to their credit neither the defense nor C-Mac actually broke. (Though a few of those rebounds - oye!)
Fans nearly got the chance to exhale when a dump in from David Savard hit the stanchion and bounced off of Howard's back, but unfortunately the puck bounced just past the post and stayed out. Alas. Midway through the period, Mark Letestu would spring loose on a near breakaway towards the end of a penalty kill, but David Legwand knocked Test Tube's stick away before he could take a shot. (Though he did draw a power play, which forced Detroit to go on the defensive for two valuable minutes.)
There would be just under two minutes left in regulation when Mike Babcock took his time out and called Howard to the bench, and that's when most of the hockey fans in Columbus took a deep breath. Despite having the extra attacker, the Wings struggled at holding the zone thanks to some excellent forechecking work, and Derek MacKenzie nearly picked Brian Lashoff's pocket in front of the open cage to seal the deal, but didn't quite manage the trick.
Fortunately, as time ran down, Wisniewski would take the puck off of the boards and flip it up to Johansen, who skated past the red line before hammering his 29th of the season into an empty net to seal the deal, and sending that roller coaster soaring one last time before gliding to a stop as the final horn sounded.
Final Score: Jackets 4 - Red Wings 2
- Curtis McElhinney - Yeah, ok, his rebound control wasn't, but "McBackup" walked into a nasty situation and made every save he absolutely had to (especially in the final minutes of regulation), to bring home a win.
- Ryan Johansen - With his bookend goals, the Johan is on the doorstep of being a 30 goal scorer.
- James Wisniewski - Three assists tonight, bringing him to a career high 36.
Bottom of the Barrel:
- Nathan Horton - Not a strong night for #8. He had a couple of "ooh, so close" moments, but he also had some pretty weak defensive plays and a horrible offensive zone penalty during a power play.
- Evgeny Kuznetsov - The Russian Rookie notched his first NHL goal with :42 seconds to go in Washington, tying the game and giving the Capitals a point against LA.
- Slumping - Still a bit too much lacksadaisical in the Jackets' game for my liking, especially late in games. I'd really like to see this team dictate more to their opponents, especially when holding a lead.
Aside from the Capitals forcing a shootout, things broke about as well as Columbus could hope for on the out of town scoreboard. With Toronto and Detroit both losing in regulation that puts Columbus back into the WC1 spot, AKA 7th place in the Eastern Conference.
The bad news is that with a couple days off before playing the Penguins on Friday, the Jackets aren't going to stay there, but they've got a couple valuable games in hand. The challenge now is to make the most of their opportunities as they head down the final stretch. 91 points is looking like the target in the Eastern Conference. If they can scrap their way to 92 or 93, they're virtual locks for the postseason.
A lot of people wondered if this team was done after last weekend's painful losses. Tonight was a defiant objection on a nice big stage thanks to NBC, and they took their odds of making the postseason from a coin flip to just shy of 75%. Every win jacks that number higher. Every loss slides that finish line a bit further away, and it's likely that every game left down the stretch is going to be just as much of an emotional wringer.
Ten games left. Time to put up, or shut up.